Building a better battery

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UCCS professors Gregory Plett (left) and Scott Trimboli are working to improve electric car batteries. Their lab equipment pictured above charges and discharges batteries to simulate use in a vehicle.

Helped by DOE funding, UCCS to build prototype for powering electric cars

The path toward much-advanced batteries for electric cars might begin in Colorado Springs.

The University of Colorado Colorado Springs received a $716,000 Department of Energy grant last week to build a better electric-vehicle battery system.

That $716,000 is just UCCS’ portion of a $3 million grant to a team consisting of UCCS, University of Colorado Boulder, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden and Ford Motor Company and led by Utah State University.

The DOE’s Advanced Research Projects Agency — Energy is behind the funding. The Utah State grant is just one among 14 given nationwide, all addressing different areas of energy storage and battery technology advancement.

The team has three years to develop a prototype battery that’s more efficient, affordable and longer-lasting than today’s.

“We’ll each leverage our own areas of expertise,” said Scott Trimboli, associate dean of the UCCS school of engineering and applied sciences.

“Our expertise is in battery modification and control.”

The university shared another DOE grant of $954,000 with CU Boulder last year to develop an advanced battery research program offering certificates, bachelor’s degrees and doctorates. The program has grown, attracting students from other parts of the country, said UCCS professor of control systems engineering Gregory Plett. There are 95 students in the program now.

Work starts soon

Within the next month, Ford will send the team an electric vehicle battery pack used in its new lineup of four electric and electric hybrid vehicles. After NREL runs initial diagnostics, it will hand the pack over to UCCS.

“The essence of what we’ll be doing is developing software to estimate or determine and ultimately control what’s going on inside the battery,” Trimboli said.

That will require a lot of research. UCCS has an advanced battery lab that allows students to test battery technology to see how it ages and degrades, so they might be able to determine how to slow or stop that degradation.

The lab equipment acts like a car, so the researchers won’t need an electric vehicle to test the batteries.

“Developing a prototype in three years is a tall order,” Plett said.

The grant money will pay for three graduate students to work full-time on the project with a staff of other part-time students.

While UCCS works on building a brain for the battery, other team members at NREL, CU Boulder and Utah State will pursue other ways to optimize battery performance and charging for an electric vehicle.

“The important thing to keep in mind will be that this is for a consumer vehicle,” Trimboli said.

That means all of the functions also will have to feel good and make sense for a driver. He said another researcher told a story about developing a system that revved the engine going downhill in order to charge the battery pack. But that’s not what cars typically do, and it made drivers uncomfortable. So, even though it was optimal for the battery, the system had to go.

When it’s all finished, the team won’t have the car to run the battery, but it will have a battery that’s ready to slip into a car and make the electric vehicle cost-competitive with a standard combustion engine vehicle, Trimboli said.

That’s the goal.

He wants to bring the cost for the lithium-ion battery used in electric vehicles today down four-fold from about $500 per kilowatt hour of stored energy to $125 per kilowatt hour.

The opportunity is huge

This grant, falling on the heels of the grant that created the program at UCCS, builds on the university’s growing reputation in the field of battery science and energy storage. Having a chance to work on real-life applied science and technology projects like this will draw more students to the program.

Plett said he’s already had two students who were taking classes remotely move to Colorado Springs.

Beyond that, it excites those who are already involved.

“As academics, we can pontificate and work on projects that will never see the light of day,” Plett said. “These projects could really make an impact, make a difference. We’re going to be implementing this in a real Ford battery pack.”

Beyond this project, Plett said he believes there is expanding opportunity in battery science and energy storage research and the university is already positioned at the front end of an industry.

“This provides great opportunity for a new group of graduate students to get involved,” Trimboli said. “And this field is just in its infancy.”

Beyond the work this team is doing with electric vehicle batteries, ARPA-E funded 13 other teams working on other energy storage projects, including one that will develop a better way to use electric vehicle batteries for grid storage, Trimboli said.

As the battery science and energy storage industry grows, it could create new opportunity for the city as well.

Plett said he has trouble imagining the next Tesla Motors starting up in Colorado Springs, because too much goes into building a car — it’s not just about the battery, he said.

But the school is positioning itself with this project to bring technology from the lab to the sales floor, something the greater business community world will likely notice.

AFA demonstrating energy-saving concept’s viability

The Air Force Academy is currently constructing a shower facility that will demonstrate a cutting-edge, energy-efficient heating and cooling technology.

Karen Henry, a professor of civil and geotechnical engineering, is leading the energy foundation demonstration.

Energy foundations, Henry said, work a lot like geothermal heating and cooling systems, but don’t go as deep into the earth.

“They’re more affordable and a wiser use of space,” Henry said.

The idea is that fluid is naturally pre-heated or cooled in pipes that run through a building’s foundation. The fluid then is pumped throughout the building and heated or cooled further with traditional systems to achieve the ideal interior temperature, Henry said.

But because the fluid already is cool or warm from the building’s foundation, it theoretically will require less energy to reach the right temperature.

Henry said she expects the facility to be finished by the end of 2013. She will spend the next year (2014) running the hybrid heating and cooling system, taking measurements along the way. The following year, she’ll shut off the energy foundation system and use traditional heating and cooling methods.

“What’s so great about this is that it’s the first time we have been able to do a side-by-side comparison like this,” Henry said. “This will be the first project of its kind in the world, in that we can heat the building completely by conventional means.”

The Department of Defense asked for energy-efficient demonstration projects last year, and Henry had this in mind after speaking about energy foundations at the University of Colorado Boulder. Energy foundations have been around since the 1980s, though they haven’t been popular outside of Europe.

“It was actually developed by an Austrian contractor, and there wasn’t much science or engineering behind it,” Henry said.

This demonstration project will offer sound evidence as to what energy foundations can do to produce efficient heating and cooling.

“The military and the DoD really spend a lot of money on energy,” Henry said. “And anything that can reduce energy costs is beneficial.”